I went through childhood listening to Tom Lehrer’s “New Math”. The 1965 song, performed in part like standard spoken-word comedy, made me laugh every time. “In the new approach,” the satirist says of the revolutionary mathematics he purports to teach us, “the important thing is to understand what you’re doing rather than to get the right answer.” Working aloud through a subtraction problem at the piano, Lehrer sings the operations: “And so you’ve got thirteen tens and you take away seven and that leaves five. Well, six, actually, but the idea’s the important thing.” This struck me at the time as nothing more than an amusingly goofy numeric riff, and perhaps one with harsh implications for the flaky educational fads of the nineties my peers and I then endured. Only years later did I find out that Cold War America of the early sixties actually went through a New Math phase, shaken hard enough by Sputnik to desperately foist abstract, set theory-driven math textbooks upon its elementary schoolers.
Lehrer, who turned 85 on Tuesday, knows the subject well: he holds degrees in mathematics from Harvard, has co-authored such papers as “Random walks with restraining barrier as applied to the biased binary counter” and “The distribution of the number of locally maximal elements in a random sample”, and, after retiring from music in the early seventies, taught math classes at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Legend has it that he would incorporate relevant songs from his catalog into lectures. But he never sang only about mathematics; he also sang about physics, as you can see in the animated version of his 1959 song “The Elements” above, a tribute simultaneously to the periodic table and The Pirates of Penzance. Nobody can deny the importance of learning how to subtract or how to tell one element from another, but we’d do well to keep Lehrer’s sharp human insights, present implicitly in all his music and explicitly in some of it, in mind. So put one of his records on the next time you have a birthday of your own, taking a bracing shot of his wit before you continue, as he put it in “Bright College Days”, “sliding down the razor blade of life.”
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.